115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“The Early Days of a Better Nation”: Commons against Capital in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

Justin Wyble, Chaminade University of Honolulu

Against the recent predominance of dystopias in 21st-century literature and culture, I argue that there is emerging a new phase of utopian literary production.  My reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway shows how these texts imagine a better future by anticipating a post-capitalist society.      


In his recent work of political theory entitled Omnia Sunt Communia: On the Commons and the Transformation to Postcapitalism, Massimo De Angelis makes the case that the “commons could develop into a hegemonic force to push us into a postcapitalist mode of production” (14).  Against the new enclosures of late capitalism, social movements around the world are fighting to find ways to live within (and often against) the general conditions of cynicism and austerity of our present moment.  De Angelis shows how it may be productive to understand these movements as waging “value struggles” against capital and for the commons.  How might 21st-century literature contribute to these struggles?


I offer readings of two recent novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017), to suggest that literature is already participating in these struggles by imagining possible post-capitalist societies based not on the profit motive of capital, but on the human needs of commoners.  I will show how Robinson’s novel, in depicting a future Manhattan partially submerged by rising sea levels, offers both a critique of the enclosures of our present and a vision of the effects of these enclosures on the future.  At first glance this novel may appear as yet another dystopia, a genre so common in the opening decades of the 21st century; however, and most importantly, Robinson offers a utopian turn away from the typical depiction of the future-as-nightmare in the final part of New York 2140 entitled “The Comedy of the Commons.”  Doctorow’s Walkaway also offers a vision of a post-capitalist society emerging against late capitalism, by imagining that hundreds of thousands of people “walkaway” from their alienated lives within capitalism and collectively build a post-scarcity, commons-based way of living.     


I agree with Fredric Jameson that, while postmodernism in art may now be dated, we are still living within the third phase of capitalism, what he refers to as postmodernity.  Perhaps what we are seeing in these two recent texts, however, are literary symptoms of a shift to a “late postmodernism,” a cultural logic much more political than the texts often associated with the dominant postmodernism of the last 40 years or so.  Jameson has said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”; it seems that Robinson and Doctorow, two of our greatest “realists of a larger reality” (to borrow a phrase from Ursula K. Le Guin), are up to the challenge of imagining not just the end of capitalism, but the emergence of a whole new mode of production.